Over the years I’ve run a bunch of different street vending stands. I sold my own publications. I sold sets of hand-printed greeting cards. I sold used books. But the oddest gig I had was: Ace Backwords, used umbrella salesman.
Like most things in my life, it started out by accident. One night Bob Dylan happened to be putting on a show at the Haas Pavilion on the Berkeley campus. And I was hanging out outside the arena, listening to the music that was wafting outside. There was a long line of people waiting to get into the show. And it turned out, Haas Pavilion had a policy: No backpacks, cans or bottles, or umbrellas were allowed in the arena. It happened to be pouring rain at the time. So EVERYBODY who was waiting on line had an umbrella. And when they got to the door, they dumped their umbrellas in a big pile. Actually, it was more like a MOUNTAIN of umbrellas. If you could imagine 15 thousand umbrellas. It was a LOT of umbrellas.
I was a bit of a hustler back then. And I could sense opportunity knocking. So I was keeping an eye on all those umbrellas to see what happened to them.
The Dylan show itself was kind of odd. This was the tour when Dylan played keyboards instead of guitar. And it was particularly weird when he did “Like a Rolling Stone.” Now, in certain circles that song is considered the unofficial Berkeley national anthem. So I’ve heard dozens of cover versions over the years. But it was weird to hear Dylan doing HIS cover version of the song. It sounded like somebody doing a bad Bob Dylan imitation. I mean, I’ve heard people do much better Dylan imitations than Dylan himself.
Anyways, after the show was over it wasn’t raining. So most people figured: “Fuck it. I’m not gonna’ wade through that mountain of umbrellas to find mine.” So it became clear that thousands of umbrellas would be headed for the Berkeley dump.
So I got my shopping cart and hauled off several big loads of umbrellas. And let me tell you, some of those umbrellas were quite expensive. Ornate, carved handles. And exotic, colorful patterns. Apparently, a lot of those Bob Dylan fans are quite well-heeled. There weren’t many “Napoleons in rags” at that show, that’s for sure.
So, for weeks afterwards, whenever it rained I would set up my vending table on Telegraph Avenue, and dump a big pile of umbrellas on it, and a big sign that said: “UMBRELLAS $2.”
I made money hand over fist. Those umbrellas sold like, well, they sold like umbrellas in a rainstorm.
The irony was, the rain is the bane of existence to most of the other street vendors. The rain usually completely kills sales. But to me, the rain was pure gold.
Story of my life. Whatever is considered the normal way of doing things for most people, I’m usually moving in the exact opposite direction.